IBA 2012: inside the bubble
At the risk of appearing graceless to my host, I can't help wondering if the International Bar Association ought to be more important than it is. After all, the world's biggest organisation of international bars and legal practitioners has this week convened what is thought to be the biggest gathering of lawyers ever, anywhere.
There are over 6,000 attendees here in Dublin and more than 5,000 legal practitioners. No wonder Irish taoiseach Enda Kenny afforded delegates the warmest of welcomes - and a little native humour - as he took a break from grappling with the mouldering corpse that is the Celtic Tiger. His country desperately needs the millions of euros they are shovelling into the pockets of the country's hoteliers and licensed victuallers.
So why do I get the nagging feeling that it's all a bit of a sterile talking shop? I suppose the thought was seeded by the opening ceremony, which attracted a controversialist titan in Nobel economics laureate and arch-critic of globalisation Professor Joseph Stiglitz. The professor impishly riffed on the theme of growing inequality in western economies by observing that the biggest beneficiaries of growth since the 2008 crash have been the '1%' - or, as Stiglitz pointedly noted, 'many of you in this room'.
That reality was underlined by a book I am reading while here - Enough is enough: how to build a new republic, by the fearless and forensic Irish political commentator Fintan O'Toole. Far more than a mere polemic, this exposes the establishment complaisance and institutional negligence that has saddled every family of four in this country with €200,000 of state debt. And O'Toole does not spare Ireland's lawyers, who rode shotgun as the economy hurtled to its doom.
As we sit here in the new convention centre by the Liffey, a crystalline monument to the construction mania that has left swathes of Ireland's countryside dotted with zombie housing, it is uncomfortably clear that the real Ireland is a very different place from that projected by the polished hospitality on offer at the Royal Dublin Society and Guinness Storehouse. The Convention Centre looks like a bubble and it is one - perhaps that was the architect's little joke.
So what do Ireland's problems have to do with the IBA? Much, if indirectly. Stiglitz stressed that it is the responsibility of the legal profession internationally to defend access to justice in the face of elites which - as O'Toole might put it - want the less affluent to pick up the tab for their own greed and recklessness. How powerful would it be, for example, if the conference concluded with the issue by all 200 bar members of a communique calling on governments to halt cuts to state aid for legal representation?
It is unlikely to happen. As one senior bar official told me, the IBA is instinctively conservative and its conference is principally about thinking of better ways to make money, for all the event's liberal patina and noble rhetoric about the rule of law. Perhaps that explains why only about 50 of 5,200 delegates bothered to turn up for a setpiece interview with the UN special rapporteur on Torture Juan E Mendez. (The organisers were embarrassed by this, I gather, and rightly so).
What the IBA ought to aspire to be is nothing less than a United Nations of Lawyers. Getting more than one in 10 of your members to attend the annual conference is an impressive enough achievement in itself. However, unlike the host country these days, it needs to be built on.
Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief
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